This guide has been prepared for householders. It describes the risks to your health from being exposed to asbestos fibres. It explains who is at risk and how to reduce exposure to yourself, your family and others. It also contains basic information on identifying and dealing with asbestos.
Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring minerals found in rock formations. Three types of asbestos were mined in Australia: white, blue and brown asbestos. Large deposits were mined in Western Australia and New South Wales, and there were smaller operations in Tasmania and South Australia. Asbestos mining was completely stopped in Australia by 1983 but it is still mined in large quantities at many locations worldwide. Mined asbestos only represented a small proportion of the asbestos used in Australia (about 5%) and the bulk was imported. The majority of asbestos (90%) used throughout the world, including Australia, was white asbestos. Australia banned the use or import of blue and brown asbestos or asbestos products in the mid-1980s, and banned all manufacture or import of white asbestos products in December 2003.
Asbestos fibres are strong, heat resistant and have insulating properties. Clumps of mined asbestos can be broken down into loose fibres or fibre bundles, and can be mixed with other materials, such as cement, to produce a variety of building products. Up to 90% of the asbestos produced in or imported into Australia was used for the manufacture of building products, especially asbestos cement materials.
Asbestos fibres can be found in the air from the breakdown of natural asbestos deposits and manufactured asbestos products. Once airborne, small fibres may remain suspended in the air for some time and can be carried long distances by wind before settling down. Larger fibres and particles tend to settle more quickly. Asbestos fibres do not dissolve in water or move through soil. They are generally not broken down to other compounds and remain virtually unchanged over long periods. Asbestos-containing building products are classified as either ‘friable’ (soft, crumbly) or ‘bonded’ (solid, rigid, non-friable).